Mi'kmaq Sun


Cover for John Prescott Heald's Mi'kmaq Sun

A novel by John Prescott Heald. ISBN: 978-0-9824848-8-3. Published January 2014. Can be ordered from Reck House Press for $17.95: use the "Add to Cart" button below to be brought to a secure site for ordering. This book is also available through selected bookstores, and Amazon. A Reader's Guide is available for this title.

About Mi'kmaq Sun

Near winter-bound Fort Arnold, Maine, on the Canadian border, the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs maintains a depressed reservation. John Paul Theriault has moved off the reservation, but not far away. Instead of tackling the university engineering program he thinks he can’t handle, he does a menial job in Fort Arnold while he nurtures his sled dogs and trains for the Crown of Maine race. He finances his ambition by mushing contraband cigarettes on old Indian trails and across the frozen Saint John River into Canada, over the same route his father used before he disappeared through breaking ice twenty-five years earlier.

While he works his team, John Paul also works up a powerful resentment against ATF agent Nick Bergeron, his mother’s lover and a man paid to stop smugglers like John Paul. Haunted by what he knows about the night John Paul’s father disappeared, Bergeron worries about his own son, drinks too much, and out of loyalty to John Paul's mother, makes sure his stakeouts don’t cross her son’s path. Which is just as well, since John Paul is soon smuggling cargo more lucrative than cigarettes: people. People with an agenda of their own.

Then a strange Indian from the far north moves into a riverside shack. Has he somehow found his way there, or has he instead found his way back? Why does John Paul think the Indian could be his father, a man long presumed dead? The discovery of the murdered body of a young boy frozen on the Saint John ice triggers a realization: even if the stranger turns out to be the killer, John Paul can’t just let the police haul him away. When the Mounties catch up with John Paul, he hopes the tribe is correct that he has treaty-given rights of free passage to Canada. But he’s not sure those rights will make any difference.

John Paul waits in jail and Bergeron’s life skids into crisis. He’s losing his job, he just got divorce service from his wife, and his son is in trouble. His agency has rookies handling the case of a local drug dealer, but Bergeron suspects the case is a lot more complex than his boss thinks, especially after the drug dealer is tortured to death.

All the elements collide when a powerful magnetic storm lights up the sky, exposing dark secrets usually cloaked both by the forest and by the past.

 

From Mi'kmaq Sun:

John Paul eased his weight and talked the dogs onto the shards of the shoreskirt ice. Even with the booties they didn’t like it but knew beyond there was good flat running and so pulled without complaint. At the point where the ice lay ridged upon the main strength of the current the runners stuck and John Paul stepped and threw his weight and talked the dogs in his low coax. Rooster in lead lowered his head and set his haunches. The swing dogs not yet of a mind to accept the upstart looked askance and hove their separate way. Immediately the team dogs and wheel dogs went bad; lines tangled; snarls and gnashing of teeth ensued. John Paul walked along the line unhooking and setting it all straight and getting them calmed. Rooster himself leveled a doleful look out of his blue eyes and John Paul knelt and spoke to him at eye level with grave respect. There was willpower here because Rooster was a handsome dog and John Paul wanted to put his hands on such beauty but knew that would be a mistake in the eyes of the rest. The dogs heard his voice and saw his demeanor and perhaps took some of it to heart. In any event they quieted and sat easy and maintained their line. Then back to the sled John Paul mushed them again and the runners broke free and with Rooster for now the established leader and surely the fastest as well as the handsomest, the dogs ran smooth as any Iditarod team upon the flat ice. John Paul’s heart beat and his breath steamed and he knew how good it was to be alive. Let the sun awaken.

sleddog

The Canadian woods received the sled. Here the Mounties ruled. Once on a return run John Paul had been accosted by one such patrolling on a snow machine, a stern-faced fellow as young as John Paul who spoke by the book with neither malice nor irony. He’d searched John Paul and the sled, telling that if he found a gun or cash of a certain value all including sled and dogs would belong to the Dominion of Canada. Luckily he hadn’t searched the dogs, for that was not in his book.

A trail known only to a few Indians carried them across a desolate terrain: hillock and bog and scrub pinewoods extending to Labrador and beyond, made passable by winter. Once of a summer John Paul had crossed by johnboat to hunt moose here as Indian rights promulgated by treaty allowed. Never again. Consumed by blackfly and mosquito he’d retreated empty-handed. This landscape was created for ice and snow. One trail led to another. None of them marked, but they lay in John Paul’s head as though on a map. After ten miles of such running, the rendezvous. A hard-packed logging road, a waiting flatbed truck, all wheels chained, the bed boxed, exhaust a white burble. John Paul ordered a halt. The dogs eased and lay flat. John Paul set the snow hook and called a greeting. The tailgate dropped; two Mi’kmaqs jumped down and came to take the load. John Paul unlashed the bindings. The men, new to him, stood watching and silent. One of them smoked. In the slipping light of the aurora John Paul watched their faces. They never looked him in the eye. When they were done moving the load a third man jumped down from the cab. Cash exchanged. John Paul folded it into a pocket. The man from the cab, known to John Paul as a Quebecois Iroquois of no particular or constant name, looked to the sky.

“They say it’s a sign,” he said.

John Paul frowned. “I heard. The scientists say a stronger one could take out the whole electrical grid.”

“I’m meaning the old men. The preachers. End of the world.”

“Well. Maybe this time they’re right.”

The Iroquois nodded and went back to his truck. He climbed up and slid in and looked down. A shifty look. John Paul knew him well enough to know something was coming.

“You wouldn’t be interested in a return load?”

John Paul considered. “I won’t carry dope.”

“It ain’t any dope.”

“What then.”

“A man. He’ll pay well.”

“Why doesn’t he take the bridge like everyone else.”

“You know why. I seen his cash. Good Canadian dollars.”

“And what are you getting out of it?”

The Iroquois shook his head. He had a flat brutal face full of pocks and under the aurora it held an aspect of the moon.

“Enough. And more business later. We could do okay, you and me. See him at least.”

“He’s in the truck?”

The Iroquois pointed his thumb. “In back.”

“Hiding.”

The Iroquois shrugged. “Trying to stay warm.”

John Paul stepped away and shook his head.

The Iroquois scowled out the window. “You could make more in one run than you’re making all winter with these chickenshit cigarettes. And more to come.”

“Cigarettes are one thing. People are another. What do you mean, more to come? How many?”

“One, maybe two. One at least.”

“Who are they? I’m not running any terrorists.”

The Iroquois shrugged. “They ain’t terrorists. Refugees is what they are. From one of them A-rab countries. You know how they’re always killing each other. Scientists, doctors, like that. On the wrong side. This one’s the scout, getting the lay of the land. Says he’s got people waiting for him across the river.”

“Tonight isn’t the right time. Something like this has to be planned.”

“It has to be tonight. Otherwise his people are going to look for transport somewhere else.”

“What do you mean, his people.”

“The people who’re paying the freight. Who cares. They’ve got money and want to spend it.”

“How much?”

“Five thousand Canadian.”

“For him alone.”

The Iroquois nodded. “Half now. The other half on delivery. He’s got the first half on him. We split fifty-fifty.”

John Paul did some math. Though he knew the risk he saw entry fees and a new racing sled. “Well. I’ll see him. I’m not promising anything, not tonight, not beyond.”

The Iroquois grinned and spat and jumped down and went around the back of the truck and hammered a fist on the tailgate. It dropped; the two Mi’kmaqs stared out; in the dark recess a shadow stirred. The Iroquois spoke. The shadow came, offered itself to the aurora’s light. John Paul looked. A young man shivering in a flimsy threadbare jacket, large eyes black with fear in a narrow unshaven face. A hint of high mountain passes and desiccate plains in those black eyes. To John Paul came a remembrance of things best forgotten. A goatherd and the thud of bombs. John Paul pushed it away. Yet it remained, a blood-dripping guilt. The man gripped a canvas bag under an arm. He showed his teeth but didn’t speak.

“Do you speak English?”

The man looked to the Iroquois and back to John Paul. He shook his head but the Iroquois answered. “He knows enough to get by.”

“Tonight,” the man said. “I have to go tonight.”

“What’s your hurry?”

“People waiting.”

“Well. That’s not my concern.”

“Please.”

“It’s not a good idea. There are patrols. They frown on smuggling around here, especially people smuggling.”

“Please. I pay.” The man pulled a pouch out of his jacket. John Paul saw how careful he was of his bag. Open, the pouch contained a wad of bills thick as a thumb. The man brandished it. “I must go tonight.”

The Iroquois leered. “Make up your mind, kid. You can see he’s okay. Do it.”

What John Paul saw was treachery. This alien man’s and his own.

“Let me tell you something,” said John Paul. “There are patrols. Mounties on this side. Immigration enforcement on the other. I know you heard of ICE. ATF too. Used to be alcohol, tobacco and firearms, but now they added explosives. Just so you know. Let’s say I take you. If I run into a patrol I’ll dump you. Leave you alone in the woods. There’s a cold front due in. You think it’s cold now? Try twenty below. You won’t last long, not in those clothes. You understand? If we make it I’ll take you where you’re going and that’ll be the end of it. I won’t help you after that. You understand?”

The man nodded and bent his head like a supplicant. When he looked up his eyes were filmed. John Paul stood back.

“Okay then. Come along.”

The man jumped down. He wore a pair of stiff-looking boots, no doubt bought for tonight’s purpose. John Paul wondered why he hadn’t bought a parka as well. The man’s bag swung and he cradled it in his arms. John Paul saw how lithe he was, catlike, not a supplicant at all. Like the goatherd, first one thing and then a treacherous other. Smashed for his treachery by five hundred pounds of high explosive. The Iroquois came and the man handed over his money. John Paul pointed him to the empty basket, then trailed the Iroquois around to the cab. The Iroquois climbed in. John Paul looked up at him.

“You said fifty-fifty.”

“That’s right. I brought him this far. This half’s mine. You get yours when you deliver him.”

“Bullshit. I’m taking the risk. If I have to dump him I won’t get anything. You want to do business, give me half now. I’ll bring you your other half when I come back.”

The Iroquois scowled. “Get up here.”

John Paul went around to the other side and climbed into the cab. The heater blew a hot blast. Without a word the Iroquois counted out half the cash and laid it on John Paul’s palm.

“You care for a drink? Something to celebrate our new partnership.”

John Paul shook his head and opened the door and climbed down. The Iroquois cranked his window and looked at him from behind the glass. He worked his gears and eased the clutch and the truck went trundling away. The two Mi’kmaqs stared out over the tailgate, the one still smoking. John Paul watched the glow of the cigarette as the truck disappeared into trees and darkness. The Lights danced above the road. John Paul turned to the sled. The canvas bag lay in the basket. The man stood close beside, beating his arms and watching the sky.

“The Lights,” said John Paul. “Sun’s waking up. I’d guess up around Hudson Bay you could read by ’em. Some people are worried.”

The man turned his eye upon John Paul. A quick intelligence written there. “Yes,” he said. “Powerful event. Coronal mass ejection. Destroy all your transformers, computer circuits, everything. Like EMP.”

“You mean an electromagnetic pulse.”

“One nuclear explosion. Over your state of Kansas.”

“That’s the theory. I doubt anyone wants to test it. Get their country turned to glass.”

“Some would not care. They would welcome such a thing. You Americans should understand.”

John Paul looked at this man. “What are you, an engineer?”

“I was. Before the fanatics.”

“What’s your name?”

The man mumbled something in his language.

“Okay, don’t tell me. You been to Mecca?”

The man nodded. A glint in his eye. “At age thirteen. My father took me.”

“Well. Then I’ll just call you Hajji, if that’s okay with you.”

A sharp look.

“Sure,” said John Paul. “I’ve been in your part of the world. I was happy to leave it.”

“And you?”

“I’m just a nameless Mi’kmaq. What’s in that bag of yours?”

“Nothing. A few possessions.”

“You wouldn’t mind if the Mounties or ICE had themselves a look?”

The Hajji shrugged. “They are personal things. Valuable to my family but to no one else.”

“Then you wouldn’t mind showing them to me.”

The Hajji looked at the bag in the basket, then back to John Paul. He shrugged again and squatted and worked the zipper and spread the bag open. John Paul regarded the contents. A couple of books, photographs in frames, a phone. Beneath, a change of clothes.

The Hajji turned his sharp face up. “You see.”

John Paul felt impatience. “Well. You best make yourself comfortable. It’ll be a long run. Wrap yourself in that sheepskin. It’ll keep you warm enough. All you need do is ride. Don’t be talking. I need my ears. The patrols use snow machines. If I hear one we’ll see if we can avoid it. If we can’t, you take to the woods and hide. I didn’t want to say it in front of the Iroquois, but I’ve got a line of caches along this trail. Food, stove, fuel. Enough to last you a week. I’ll tell you what to look for if need be. If I’m not back in five or six days, head south. Where the sun is mid-day. Keep to the trail, use the caches. You’ll hit the river. Wait till dark and cross the ice. There’s a road close. Towns in either direction. Maybe you can find your friends. You understand?”

The Hajji zippered his bag and squatted doubtful. “I don’t know this forest. I will get lost. I will freeze to death.”

“You should of thought about that before you came here. Look, worst case build up a big fire. Feed it green pine, make smoke. The Mounties will find you. You’ll spend some time in detention. Ask for asylum. They’ll probably let you go. Understand?”

The Hajji nodded and eased into the basket and took his bag between his knees and wrapped himself. John Paul folded the night’s cash into a pouch he carried in a pocket for that purpose, then clipped the pouch to the wheel dog Brutus’s harness where it lay flat against the dog’s hard belly. Anyone beside himself who tried to grab it would lose a hand. He went along the line and cajoled and organized and got them turned around. The Hajji watched silent from the cocoon of the sheepskin. John Paul hauled in the snow hook and they set off. Two miles along the trail branched and John Paul called the turn. Rooster took it and the point dogs and then the swing dogs followed. The wheel dogs in their turn. Here it was all new snow and hard running but John Paul judged this night with the cold front coming and everything about to freeze solid the patrols would be looking for easy. But after two hour’s quiet running the pitched whine of a snow machine came ripping through the woods. John Paul called a halt. The dogs lay nervous. The Hajji turned up his face. The whine pitched higher.

“We sit tight until we know if they’re coming or going.”

They sat. The whine rose to a racket. Through the trees to the east a light blinked. “They’re on a parallel trail,” said John Paul. "Quarter mile off. Heading for the river. We’ll have to watch for them when we get there.”

toboggin sled

The light blinked a last time; the racket dropped away. The woods lay silent. The Hajji huddled in the sheepskin. John Paul mushed. The dogs pulled. Another hour passed. The riverbank opened ahead. The dogs saw the flat ice and wanted to run, but John Paul stopped them short. He stood listening, heard only the vast subzero silence of the woods, then eased the dogs forward upon the riverbank. By now the Lights had receded into the north but a bright moon had risen. Dawn lay beneath it, a streak upon the eastern horizon. The air utterly still, cold and heavy as iron. For a second he thought about dumping the Hajji. But then he saw the fog and judged they could make it.

The strange fog hovered above the ice. He’d heard of the phenomenon, the result of temperature inversion where warm air is compressed beneath cold, but in his years had never seen it. Or maybe, as the old men and preachers would have it, this fog was some apocalyptic effect of the aurora. The dogs, whining and restive, watched it too. Their breath rose and crystallized and fell. The fog stirred. One of the swing dogs set up a howl. The Hajji on the sled turned his head to look back. In the moment John Paul caught the profile. Etched and eroded by a cruel desert wind. What alien was he delivering?


Reader responses to Mi'kmaq Sun:

From "Bushnell on Books," Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel, 3/27/14:

Mikmaq Sun is . . . an ambitious, complex and suspenseful tale of smuggling operations, murder, treachery and the realization that you just can't trust anybody anymore.

From Bill Carpenter (The Wooden Nickel, The Keeper of Sheep, The Hours of Morning, Speaking Fire at Stones, and Rain):

Using a powerful narrative voice reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s border fiction, John Prescott Heald sets this electrifying narrative in the frozen boundary of Quebec and Northern Maine. The nations are French-Canadian and Micmaq Indian; the cargo is contraband, the transport is by dogsled over the treacherous ice. Heald’s action is intense and nonstop but his prose reveals the depth of emotion and reflection beneath the surface. His main character, John Paul, an Afghanistan combat veteran, carries the burden of that conflict into his risk-filled existence in a landscape of extraordinary natural beauty and human endurance.

From Philip Furia (The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, and Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer):

It's hard to believe Mi'kmaq Sun is a first novel. The adventure narrative is taut and culminates in a gripping ending; characters are rich, and dominate the story in shifts, so we get to know them in depth; above all, Heald evokes the beautiful, brutal winter world of northern Maine, replete with Indians, dogsleds, and romance. Jack London has found a scion.

From Guichard Cadet (The Canon of Loose Cannons):

John Heald adds a new and different dynamic to the fiction landscape. His writing demonstrates the qualities good fiction should have: a gripping story encompassing universal themes set in a fascinating place, all told in a unique voice.

From Bill Henderson (I Killed Hemingway):

Part mystery, part procedural, part thriller, M’ikmaq Sun is a pure pleasure to read, rivalling the best mainstream literature in style and elegance, Heald’s northern border country is gritty and real, and he displays a rare ability to reveal the universal in the ordinary lives and struggles of his people. This is a fine book by a confident, skilled writer in full command of his material.

From Margaret A. Williams (Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club):

A mixture of Indian lore, Homeland Security, and murder mystery . . . a page-turner.

From Kathy Pickett (Nooksack Racing Supply and Down East Sled Dog Club, Inc.):

A quick and intriguing read with lots of twists and turns . . . a study of the human psyche, determination and resolve.

From Jean S. Coffey (Vice President, Vermont Mushers Association):

The author provides a glimpse in to the world of sled dogs and mushing which adds a unique dimension to the captivating story.

From Lydia Storey (Canadian American Sledders):
Standing on the shoulders of Tony Hillerman and Ian Rankin, Heald tells a gripping story about a Mi’kmaq Native American who loves his dogs, mushing and the wilderness relying on his wits and traditional values to spot the guideposts through the wild jungle of our electronics worshiping society with all of its violence and paradox. You will be compelled to take the sled dog ride all the way; be prepared to recharge your headlamp, oops, your book light.

 

 

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